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Peace refractions

What is peace to the refugee living in a camp, to the person who comes home to domestic violence, to those living in want, to those who cannot speak their mind, who are denied equity because of their caste, class or religion? Is the end of war or civil strife peace if justice is not done to the victims, and to the perpetrators of violence? And finally, can there be peace in any sphere without inner transformation? Swarna Rajagopalan assesses

Peace is actually such a simple thing.

When I think about writing this essay, I realise that all I really want to say is: “Be nice to each other. Peace is being nice to each other.” But that won’t do at all; I must say more even though my heart says this is all there is. Just the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Be nice to them.

I must say more, so I take the cool white radiance that glows from the word ‘peace’ spoken in any language, and I watch it refract through a prism into all its meanings. Each meaning is complete and stands alone; but peace itself is incomplete unless all its constituent meanings are in place.


More than two-and-a-half million refugees live in Darfur’s refugee camps. The majority of them fled their homes following both air raids and raids by Arab Janjaweed militia who would shoot, rape and loot their villages. Believing that Sudan’s government and the militia are closely associated, Darfur’s people would have had no choice but flight. Militia patrol the perimeter of the camps, and kill and rape those who stray outside. Thousands have died from the fighting and from hunger and disease. Peace for these refugees will begin when they are able to return to their homes and their livelihood, and be able to live without fear for their families and selves.

All over the world, people in large metros set out to work each day -- as cleaners, as mechanics, as teachers, as bankers, as entrepreneurs -- to every sort of job, ignoring the real possibility that their bus or train, their workplace or the market they stop at could be the site of a terrorist attack. Colombo. Islamabad. Mumbai. New Delhi. Ahmedabad. New York. London. Tokyo. The list of people whose lives were interrupted by such attacks is long and growing. Peace is the ability to go about your day, knowing you will go home alive at night.

To those who come home to domestic violence, however, home is not a safe haven. To live in anticipation of the next verbal or physical assault, never knowing what will provoke violence, is surely to live in a miniature war zone. Peace for victims of violence within the home -- whether it is battery, dowry harassment, rape or incestuous abuse -- is life without fear or physical harm or torture.

Freedom from fear. Freedom from physical threat. Physical safety. Physical survival.

In recent years, scholars and activists have added many dimensions to their peace work -- livelihoods, development, justice -- but the bottom line remains a life without physical threats. From the minimalist definition of peace as ‘no war’ to the rights of a girl-child to a life without violence, the first definition of peace is a life without the fear of being hurt physically, where people are confident about their survival. This is the simplest meaning of security, and security is the most immediate meaning of peace.

Peace is security.


Recent discussions on a social network on the anniversary of the 1975 Emergency revealed nostalgia for the orderliness of those months. Trains ran on time. Government offices functioned efficiently. There were no strikes. There was security for everyone who lived within the bounds of permissible opinion and activity. What those bounds were, varied from state to state. In Uttar Pradesh, a compulsory sterilisation campaign forced surgery on young childless men, in order to meet state targets. In Kerala, student-activist Rajan was arrested and died during custodial torture. Elsewhere, thousands were jailed for protesting civil rights violations. The press was censored. Ordinary Indians were secure, but was India at peace?

Intolerance of dissent and intolerance of difference both create tense environments. Last year’s controversy about My Name is Khan had nothing to do with the film. It was about the lead actor’s support for including Pakistani cricketers in the Indian Premier League. Loud protests and threats to stop the release of the film resulted in small incidents of violence, extraordinary police security for a film release, and a climate of tension and anxiety about violence that could be. Not quite war, but hardly peaceful; peace lies in accepting difference and accepting the right to express that difference.

Repression in occupied territories and colonies may deliver some semblance of order and some degree of everyday safety, but as freedom movements across history have shown, most people are not satisfied with that. Arguably, the most inspiring collective dream of the last century has been the nationalist dream of freedom, of that “heaven of freedom,” as Tagore put it.

Peace is freedom to speak one’s mind, follow one’s conscience, to learn one’s language and celebrate one’s culture, to travel at will, to follow any occupation, to participate in the affairs of the community as one wishes.

Peace is freedom.


In 1793, the East India Company devised the system of Permanent Settlement, creating overnight a class of landlords with the right to extract revenue from tenant-farmers. These zamindars became pillars of the Empire, but for the average farmer great suffering followed. As with any feudal arrangement, there might have been some benefit by way of protection, but it was not protection from exploitation by the zamindar himself. Debt and bonded labour were related consequences. The continuing plight of the Indian farmer reflects the legacy of this arrangement, with the cycle of low productivity, debt and hunger trapping rural Indians into desperate situations. Peace can mean nothing to the person struggling to make ends meet or trapped in a situation of permanent disadvantage.

Jaffna Tamils took to the introduction by colonisers of western schooling as a way out of eking a slender living from their arid land. At the time of Sri Lankan independence, this placed them at a relative advantage vis-à-vis other communities. The politics and process of redressing this early imbalance led to a language policy that trapped each community within its region, to an educational policy that introduced weighted standards, to constitutions that defined nationhood more and more narrowly, and finally to war. On the Tamil side, the fight for equity was about equal representation, restored access to opportunities and, ultimately, self-determination. The lack of fairness in successive dispensations made it impossible for peace to flourish in Sri Lanka.

In 1980, the Mandal Commission made a series of recommendations extending India’s reservation system further, as a way of extending affirmative action. The recommendations remained on election manifestos for a decade, until in 1990, the government decided to implement them. This decision, part of every party’s election promises, caused desperate unrest, with young people hitting the streets, blockading New Delhi’s arterial roads and dramatically setting themselves on fire to protest the shrinking of the ‘open’ category for educational and employment opportunities. Their desperate anger drew attention to the fact that caste and class privilege was not coterminous and that equity measures without nuance can be quite unfair. The peace of north India was shattered by the anger of protesting students; but there would be no peace after this in the homes of the young people who had chosen to die.   

The unfairness of the world moves some to quiet, defeated desperation, and others to anger and violence. Even though life is not a zero-sum game, a win-win solution can be hard to identify. But without it, peace is superficial and tenuous. Peace follows equity.

Peace is equity.


In inter-state war, reparations are part of the peace -- imposed or negotiated -- and form compensation for hostilities and war crimes. Societies transitioning out of protracted internal conflict are faced with the same questions but a much more challenging context, since perpetrators and victims come from all sides of the conflict but belong to the same setting and must live together. This is Sri Lanka’s challenge. It has appointed a Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission whose mandate is to find out what happened before and during the 2008-09 campaign, but stopping short of prosecution and punishment. Who will hold the army accountable and who will be accountable for the war crimes on the LTTE side, remain to be seen. A resolution of the conflict depends on justice being done, and lasting peace must wait.

During the 1971 Bangladesh war, thousands of women were raped by the Pakistani army. When independence came, they were given the title ‘Birangona’ as if to negate the stigma of rape. Although Bangladesh has probably gone further to acknowledge their experience and to place it on a par with the sacrifices of other freedom fighters, the fact of war-rape has not ceased to be an issue. Bangladeshis demand an apology for sexual violence during the war, but the Pakistani army dismisses this as regrettable ‘excesses’, and it remains an issue between the two states. The issue is neither prestige nor nationalism; it is justice for non-combatants who were subject to violence as part of the war. We will have to wait and see if, when and how that happens, in this case and those of other women who have faced sexual violence and exploitation during war. Peace is incomplete without coming to terms and making amends to those who have suffered.

In the days after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, thousands of Sikhs were killed in what was found by investigating civil society activists to be an organised pogrom. Justice has still not been done. For decades, those believed to have masterminded the pogrom remained in politically important positions. An unconditional apology by India’s first Sikh prime minister is an important symbol, but it is not the same as justice. After all this time, only the victims of the 1984 violence have been punished, not the planners or perpetrators. Justice delayed is justice denied. How does that inspire confidence in the will of the state to serve all its citizens equally? And how genuine is the compact those citizens make with a state which has failed them? Justice is the foundation of peace; without justice, peace is a house built on a weak foundation.

Peace is justice.


Close your eyes and imagine ‘peace’. What I see when I do that is like a child’s drawing. Green grass. Large flowers. The sun smiling in a corner. And smiling people, some holding hands, sometimes standing together like a family. Sometimes the picture has a house with large windows. Sometimes a brook runs through the picture. But look most closely at the smiling people. Why are they smiling?

The connection between peace and prosperity is not a new one. As the Bible states: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” (Isaiah 2:4). The economist’s representation of public budget choices in terms of “guns” and “butter” takes this forward, and peace activists speak of the “peace dividend”. The idea is that war and welfare use the same finite resource base; that which is not spent on war may be spent on the common welfare. Peace is an opportunity to prosper. This is an appealing argument but not an infallible one.

The child’s drawing suggests wellbeing. People are smiling because they have homes (with gardens); they are not starving; they are together, surrounded by beauty. They are not living in ruins, amid mounds of garbage, hoping to work, hoping to eat, hoping to see another day. That contentment, that feeling of having enough, that sense of wellbeing is the promise of peace. Actually having enough to eat, a place to live, fresh clean clothes, clean surroundings, work to do, and a community of family and friends to support you -- that is what people yearn for in war. Those are the systems that break down due to famine and migration; starvation and debt (think farmer suicides); war and displacement; debilitating illness and poverty. When everyone can live well and thrive, that is peace.

Peace is wellbeing.


The Himalayan foothills, parts of which lead to Hindu pilgrimage centres, have changed considerably in the last century. Deforestation, grazing and soil erosion have made landslides much more common. Further, the construction of roads, burgeoning tourist traffic and also, large projects like the Tehri dam have altered the environment to the point that livelihoods and health are adversely affected. Water pollution is a serious concern. The factors that caused this degradation mainly benefit people outside this region; the price for change that is not ecologically sound is paid locally. This is neither ecologically nor politically sustainable -- nor is it peace, even if no one is up in arms.

Equally, it is true that some things must change as populations grow and consumption patterns change. The Sardar Sarovar project, the large system of dams on the Narmada river, was intended to meet precisely such a challenge. The project was intended to irrigate large parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, and meet the power requirements of a large area. The longstanding agitation against the dam challenges three aspects of the project: the environmental damage, destruction of livelihoods, and displacement of people from the area. Had the project planners engaged with local communities, is this the project they would have designed? Now, after so many years, there may neither be room for dialogue nor for withdrawal from existing, invested positions. Change is inevitable, but peace is only possible when change follows engagement and dialogue.

There has been a great deal of attention on conflicts arising out of competition for scarce but essential natural resources. Oil is now the classic example, but conflicts over water-sharing, over mining contracts or over fishing rights are other examples. The resources are not the source of the conflict; the quest to monopolise their use or maximise profit from their sales are. To believe that these scarce resources are not just the common natural heritage of humanity but also that they must be used judiciously so as not to jeopardise the heritage of future generations, is to live in harmony not just with nature but with each other. 

A life lived in harmony -- with nature and with others -- is a life lived in peace.

Peace is harmony.


Peace is the concern not just of states, but also of communities, families and individuals. In the Indian tradition, peace-building, like all external changes, begins with the inner transformation of individuals. Several stories and texts stress the importance of working on one’s impulses. One is the story of Vishwamitra. Vishwamitra was a king whose sons offended the sage Vashishtha. The sage used the power of his penance to return the princes’ fire and defeated them. Their father, Vishwamitra, arriving to avenge their defeat, met with the same fate. This encounter awoke in Vishwamitra the desire to better Vashishtha in the spiritual realm from which he derived so much power. Many penances and many tests later, it was when Vishwamitra conquered anger that he finally achieved the status that he sought. And by then, it was no longer the point.

Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita discusses sthitaprajnya, or one who is rooted in wisdom; it is considered the essence of the Gita. A sthitaprajnya is one who is unswayed by desire, sorrow, passion, fear and rage. She takes everything in her stride, with detachment (2:55-6). Attachment brings desire and desire anger; anger is followed by bewilderment, bewilderment by loss of memory, which in turn leads to the destruction of intelligence which is death itself (2:62-3). Therefore, the sthitaprajnya controls her senses, becomes free from both attachment and hatred (2:64). The sthitaprajnya “abandons all desires and acts free from longing, without any sense of mineness or egotism” and “attains to peace” (2:71).

Mohanlal Karamchand Gandhi drew on this idea of working on the self as a prelude to changing society when he prescribed conditions a person would have to meet to undertake satyagraha. Just wanting to be a satyagrahi or serve the nation was not enough; they would have to meet stringent physical and spiritual standards.

The many spiritual organisations, for instance, the Isha Foundation and the Art of Living Foundation, that work in conflict zones as part of their service to society, base their approach on this idea that individual inner transformation is the first step to combatants laying down arms and victims surviving trauma. Working on one’s own fear, anger and pain releases the energy needed to rebuild one’s life and to move on. Repentance and forgiveness are both good bases for reconciliation. Inner peace radiates outwards.

Peace education programmes also work on the same premise. Not only do peace educators believe that peace is teachable but that raising good citizens for a peaceful society is the point of education. The UNESCO charter states that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. The defences of peace are the attitudes, values and behaviour we teach our children. These values include acceptance, sensitivity, integrity, compassion and the willingness to cooperate. Peace is learned behaviour, even a lifestyle choice that can be taught. Peace in the community, state or international context will surely follow when individuals learn to make and live that choice. “Peace is every step,” as Thich Nhat Hanh writes; every mindful choice we make.

Peace is a way of life.


Security. Freedom. Equity. Justice. Wellbeing. Harmony. A way of life.

These values remain aspirations for most societies, as even the most stable, mature and efficacious political system has trouble delivering on these counts -- leave alone realising all of these together. Peace is a composite of these seven dimensions, and as such peace is always a work-in-progress.

There will probably be no magic moment when world peace breaks out, to last forever. Peace is to be sought in moments when we choose to act peacefully and in values we choose to prioritise.

Sarveshaam Swastirbhavatu |
May everyone be well.
Sarveshaam Shantirbhavatu | Sarveshaam Poornam Bhavatu |
Sarveshaam Mangalam Bhavatu ||
May everyone experience peace, fullness and prosperity.
Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah | Sarve Santu Niramayaah |
May everyone be happy, healthy and free of disabilities.
Sarve Bhadrani Pashyantu |
May they see goodness everywhere -- in life and in others.
May they look to the good of others.
Maa Kashchid Duhkha Bhagbhavet ||
May they enjoy good fortune and never know sorrow.
Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi ||
Peace. Peace. Peace.

(Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist, currently Chennai-based, and working as an independent researcher and writer. Human security, governance and gender issues form the core of her research interests, and she has published several academic and non-academic works. She is also the founder of The Prajnya Trust)

Select bibliography

S Radhakrishnan, The Bhagavadgita, Indus, 1993

Priyadarshini Rajagopalan, From Agenda to Action: Interpreting and Implementing the NCF Peace Education Guidelines, Educational Policy Research Series, Volume I Number 3, The Prajnya Trust, September 2009

Infochange News & Features, October 2011